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America’s Collapsing Infrastrucutre

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It’s no secret that the United States has an aging and increasingly dangerous infrastructure. An embarrassment compared to Europe or Japan, Americans have decided that it is far more important to fight unnecessary wars and give our plutocrats lower taxes than to act like a modern country, creating a functional train system or repairing our vast roadways. Sinkholes are appearing in Washington D.C. and our state capital cities (not to mention everyone’s favorite winter game in Providence called “Pothole or Archeological Dig.” I felt like I was driving in Costa Rica or Honduras in February and March.) In the wake of the horrifying 2007 bridge collapse on I-35W in Minneapolis, the nation did basically nothing. Here’s a good graph on public construction spending:

Last night, a bridge on I-5 over the Skagit River north of Seattle collapsed. Amazingly, no one was killed. Very lucky. It has been 6 years since the Minneapolis disaster. Some states have prioritized bridge reconstruction but not Washington. The bridge at hand was rated as “functionally obsolete,” which is not the same thing as dangerous, but it was very old, built in 1955. State funding to make bridges safe from earthquakes is going away in 2015. Washington infrastructure gets a particularly poor rating from the American Society of Civil Engineers, especially on roads and transit systems. The ASCE said, “Bridges were awarded a C-, in part due to the nearly 400 structurally deficient bridges in Washington State. 36 percent of Washington’s bridges are past their design life of 50 years.” And last night we saw the effects of the state’s lack of infrastructure spending.

It’s also worth noting Andrew Rice’s essay on the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River, which will not exactly give you confidence to drive over that thing. Not that you have a lot of choice.

In short, we need a massive federal works program just to keep our infrastructure at a stable, functional, and safe level, not withstanding the need for high-speed rail and other new projects to keep the United States competitive with the rest of the world.

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  • Bill Murray

    Wasn’t this collapse cause by a large truck hitting the bridge? Not that a bridge shouldn’t be able to withstand this

    • Seems as such, but bridges need to be designed to withstand fairly routine accidents like this since they are narrower and thus more dangerous than the rest of the roadway.

      • They are designed for that type of load, but deterioration from lack of maintenance affects impact resistance faster than it affects static load capacity.

      • Now that I’ve looked at pictures of the failure, the truss spans had zero continuity, which makes the beige mor vulnerable to most and to earthquakes. Presumable this is part of the functionally obsolete rating.

        • Bridge, too.

          • catclub

            Ecru would have held up.

            • Moonlight. Definitely moonlight.

              • Malaclypse

                Nonsense. Moonlight often ends up underwater.

                • Eggshell? It would be appropriate.

            • Shocking pink is strongest. How else could Barbie walk on such tiny ankles?

    • Vance Maverick

      Same principle as with natural damage. If a dead branch of a tree breaks, it’s generally during a storm — but often a storm which a healthy branch would have withstood. Perhaps there’s a hundred-year truck which would have taken out this bridge even when new, but all that was needed in this case was a one- or five-year truck.

      • It now appears the truck’s weight exceeded the bridge’s limit so this will all be blamed on the driver nothing to see here move along.

        • Vance Maverick

          Right, and I’m sure the limit had always been scrupulously observed before.

        • Another Halocene Human

          Oh shit, I irresponsibly speculated to coworkers yesterday (who were not so beloved by an Almighty God as to briefly attend Engineering School, for which crime our fearless Boss and Leader suggested they think about getting another job that pays more on Thursday, yes, really, even though he only has an associate’s degree, slimy wanker) that the bridge was underengineered, ie, they looked at a formula table decided the bridge needed to withstand these forces AND NO MORE and saved money but sacrificed safety, whereas in the olden days before they had empirical formulae they used to overengineer shit which is why ancient skyscrapers and 1905 railroad trusses are still standing despite being creaky and old and having Cessnas crash into them.

          They overengineer (well, in one sense of the word) highways because asphalt lobby and engineers like to speed. But a lot of these mid-century bridges are kinda … scary.

          Also, too, noticed immediately how meh the bridge design looked structurally, probably on assumption of much lower population/demand. So yeah, it was functionally obsolete, but we cannot raise taxes on Microsoft executives! New York State tastes, Florida budget, bitchez!

      • Another Halocene Human

        I am falling down laughing at “hundred year truck”. Why weren’t you seated next to me in engineering school? I might have actually finished, for one thing. :DD

  • catclub

    The strange thing is that it looks like all through 2007 and 2008 construction spending was increasing rapidly. Or was it? Was that constant spending and falling gdp?

    • I believe that peak consists of the famous “shovel-ready” projects relief program.

      • In fairness, they were quick to fill potholes.

    • JKTHs

      It’s odd because the stimulus program’s infrastrcture mostly spent out in later years when spending was falling. I guess that’s because that spending was swamped by the state and local cuts.

      • It depend on if the chart is tracking actual expenditure dates or budget allowance dates.

        • JKTHs

          True true.

    • Haystack

      It’s good to see we got that runaway infrastructure spending under control.

    • Another Halocene Human

      Some local governments were getting housing bubble permit income and developer fees leading to big spending on road projects. At least that happened in Florida, dunno about the rest of y’all. Looked to me like SC and GA did the same thing b/c I had to drive through the piney woods multiple times in those years.

      In the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine
      I would shiiiiver

  • Davis X. Machina

    That chart is wrong. There’s no axis for “Freedom” and the line is going the wrong way.

    • rm

      Indeed. I feel it in my gut.

  • JKTHs

    You’re framing competitiveness without talking about the need for corporations to pay zero taxes or rich people to be able to easily evade their very low taxes? What ur u, sum kinda commie?

  • Linnaeus

    Some states have prioritized bridge reconstruction but not Washington.

    Given the shenanigans in our state legislature (particularly the senate), I don’t expect this to be a priority anytime soon.

    • Another Halocene Human

      Income tax is tyranny! The free market’s invisible hand will fix all!

    • demz taters

      It’s a small price to pay to avert a UN takeover through Agenda 21.

  • The cynic in me says that the pols want bridge collapses because (1) they can be blamed on the policies of predecessors and (2) they allow for new bridges to be built with the associated naming ceremonies, and groundbreaking ceremonies, and visible job creation. Only political morons would spend money on maintenance that is invisible and unloved.

  • Malaclypse

    Here’s what I don’t get – if the Tappan Zee shuts down, this is a big fucking deal. The direct and indirect impact on the Masters Of The Universe will be outstanding.

    While Schwarz’ Sane and Insane Billionaires thesis has a lot of merit, it doesn’t get at the powerful, powerful Stupid that you have to be to allow a significant risk of the Tappan Zee to collapse.

    We are ruled by stupid people.

    • While I am no fan of Cuomo fils, the real issue is that literally nothing was done when Pataki was governor. Time was wasted right when it was critical – when the extent of deterioration was discovered.

      • Sherm

        Seeing that it was built in the 1950’s to last only 50 years, plans for a new bridge should have been made without waiting to discover the deterioration. Pataki was awful.

        Now if we could only get that cross LI Sound bridge that was suppose to link Oyster Bay to Rye, my trips upstate would be so nice.

        • Or, maintain it properly in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and plan on an overhaul in the 00s rather than a replacement. It’s what people in civilized countries do.

          • Nah. While the Tap could still be a useful bridge, its carrying capacity is really tiny (EZPass, particularly the Express lane, needs to be more popular, if we want to keep the bridge). It was designed for a carrying capacity of 100,000 vehicles a day. Current usage is 135,000.

          • Another Halocene Human

            Ahem, Americans do not believe in maintenance. New car smell isn’t just an irrational quirk. It’s a way of life.

    • Sherm

      I think its replacement is finally a done deal and that construction will be starting soon. But maybe I should put one of these in the family truckster for my ride upstate this weekend.

      • The replacement is real. Whether there’s an accident before it’s in use…do you feel lucky?

        • Sherm

          I think my link answered your question.

          • So it did. I’m on the iPrecious so I’m limiting link clickage.

    • Ed K

      Bernard Stiegler has a couple of terms for what’s driving all of this: structural or systemic ‘stupidity’ and ‘short-termism.’ Basically, on his analysis, the functional imperatives of current capitalism have become opposed to any sort of investment worthy of the name, since it involves some sort of medium-to-long term projection of value into the future. Everything is ‘short-termist,’ and correspondingly stupid.

      Key point that I think is valuable in this, the stupid isn’t accidental. It’s valorized and required by the functional tendencies dominant in the political and economic system at the moment.

      • Anna in PDX

        I will look him up as I have noticed this short-termism thing being incentivized in numerous facets of society, and always thought I’d like to read research on the issue.

      • Timb

        Even as a person who favors the administrative state (I make a living in that system after all), one cannot ignore how much it takes to build in this country– not only with permits and environmental studies, etc, but also with the legal fees from the NIMBY people. Building I-69 in this benighted state has taken almost 15 years and multiple hundreds of million dollars.

        I’m not saying that we should abandon public works, but the cost to build is prohibitive in this country (as an outsider at least this is it how is seems)

        • bph

          It costs half as much to build in places like Germany, where the Green party actually matters. I don’t think the cost is driven by NIIMBY’s or EIRs.

      • Sev

        I think that’s about right. When I was a kid in the 60s, a “fast buck artist’ meant someone slimy, unworthy of respect, not a solid builder of anything. Today it might be Wall St’s term for ‘smartest guy in the room.’

    • Matt

      @Malaclypse: Regarding that, here’s a fascinating piece from 2010 regarding locales that are literally grinding paved roads into gravel because they don’t have the budget to keep them up:

      http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704913304575370950363737746.html

      Best quotes:

      Judy Graves of Ypsilanti, N.D., voted against the measure to raise taxes for roads. But she says she and others nonetheless wrote to Gov. John Hoeven and asked him to stop Old 10 from being ground up because it still carries traffic to a Cargill Inc. malting plant. She says the county has mismanaged its finances and badly neglected roads.

      and:

      “I’d rather my kids drive on a gravel road than stick them with a big tax bill,” said Bob Baumann, as he sipped a bottle of Coors Light at the Sportsman’s Bar Café and Gas in Spiritwood.

      Norquist and friends have got these folks so hopped-up on weapons-grade anti-tax STOOPID that they’re literally willing to go back to dirt roads instead of opening their wallets.

      • CaptBackslap

        Even the article’s author is subtly mocking that last guy by pointing out that he drinks Coors Light.

        • Linnaeus

          A clear example of coastal elites’ disdain for real Americans.

      • Another Halocene Human

        Grinding up roads is the new hotness. Try to keep up.

        The only thing these counties “mismanaged” was the sprawl. That is why taxes don’t cover road maintenance. Sprawl denizens are trying not to hear that because they want somebody else (the farmers, the factory owners, the incorporated areas) to pay for their shit.

  • If people have the time, the best way to avoid that Tappan Zee future death trap, is to take the GW Bridge, down further South, or the Bear Mountain Bridge, or Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, up further North.

    But, that’s too time-consuming, so sometimes, even an old Agnostic like me throws up a prayer to make it safely over the Tappan Zee.

    • Not to mention the horrible lines at the GW.

      • If you have to take it, try the lower level. I usually found it much less congested.

        Still congested – but not as bad as the upper.
        Of course, I haven’t taken it in about 4 years, so that may all have changed. But when I used to live in NC, and came home to visit, I NEVER took the upper level.

        And people in both NY and NJ can thank Gov. Christie for that, when he turned down money from President Obama to build more train tunnels.
        @$$HOLE!!!

        • Sherm

          I second the lower level recommendation, especially inbound. Cund, they’ve been doing roadwork on the NY side since last summer, so it sucks now more than ever.

          • Yeah, I’ve only been to the city a few times in the last few years – being unemployed, I can’t afford to go and do a lot of the things I used to go to the city for.

            But to tell you the truth, even when I lived Upstate, I almost NEVER drove down there, because there’s a Metro-North Station about 2 miles from me, and it’s a lot less of a hassle to take the train, than to drive down, and try to find parking – never mind paying for it. Cheaper, too, after gas went over $2-3 bucks a gallon.

          • Hanspeter

            One of the benefits of having lived in Washington Heights is that I really learned the streets of Ft. Lee and Leonia and how to avoid all but the last 20 meters of the entire I80/I95 approach and the toll plazas.

            And going outbound, there’s no reason to stay on 95 and the Cross Bronx to actually get to the bridge. However, I went to NJ over the GWB a month ago, and the approach ramps from I87 onto the Cross Bronx just before passing over the Harlem River are worse than broken.

        • The GW is still a nightmare, more so on the upper level than lower. If you have an EZ Pass, you miss the tollbooth traffic on the lower (really, people, this isn’t brain surgery!) but you inevitably get caught up in exit traffic for the West Side Hi– excuse me, Dimaggio Parkway — the Harlem River Drive or you sit on the Cross Bronx.

          • Reasonable 4ce

            This would almost be funny if it weren’t so typical of our neoliberal Press Corpse.

    • Sherm

      I do the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge sometimes, but I’m not always in the mood for driving the taconic, especially since my son gets car sick. Fuck the GWB. The traffic is unbearable.

      • Sherm,
        Try the Bear Mountain Bridge if you haven’t before. It’s got a beautiful view.
        Of course, when you get to the East side, your only way to go, is on two-lane roads.

    • R. Porrofatto

      Brooklyn Bridge:
      Inspection (as of 11/2010)
      Deck condition rating: Poor (4 out of 9)
      Superstructure condition rating: Poor (4 out of 9)
      Substructure condition rating: Poor (4 out of 9)
      Appraisal: Structurally deficient
      Sufficiency rating: 0.0 (out of 100)
      Average daily traffic (as of 2003): 140,479

      Betcha I pray harder.

      • 130 years old this weekend, yay! May it make it to 131.

      • sibusisodan

        Dear holy goodness. That is not good.

        Whose responsibility is the bridge? City-level?

        • Yup. NYDOT

          • Another Halocene Human

            NYC tried to do a London style congestion toll but failed. The stupid is still raging in the outer boroughs.

      • Emily

        Is there a place to look for bridge info? I would like to look up my local bridges. I know the Wilson bridge is brand new, but I don’t know abou the others…

        • Malaclypse

          Googling his quote got me to Bridgehunter.com, which is indeed fascinating.

      • Bill Murray

        Man am I glad I didn’t buy it that time I was ofered it back in the 80s

      • Another Halocene Human

        But we can’t toll the bridges to pay for repairs because TYRANNY!

        The New York Post said so.

    • Except the nearest bridge, the Harriman/Bear Mountain bridge, doesn’t directly connect to anything but route 9, which is basically just a boulevard on steroids. The Newburgh Bridge is an odd duck in that you have to cross it going north to go south.

      And the GWB? Maybe early on a Sunday it’s a better alternative, especially if you want to go to the city.

    • Major Kong

      If you’re on the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge you might see us landing at SWF.

      That bridge lines you right up with Runway 27.

  • Cody

    All I see is that in 2008 it looks like spending went down drastically.

    As an insane person, I can only tell you that this is all Kenyan Muslim Communists fault!

    You see how Bush was dutifully paying for “infrastructure” repairs!

    • The recession officially ended in June 2009, so that’s the right side of the gray band.

      • Cody

        Suppose that’s true. Didn’t really divide it quite right with the eye test.

        It makes a lot of sense Obama’s stimulus is that peak then.

        • catclub

          I don’t think so. I think it is (approxmately) constant spending and declining GDP that created the peak. I also do not know when construction spending is dated. Is it all the date of the bill? or when the construction takes place? I think the ramp up after the peak is stimulus spending.

        • JKTHs

          I think it’s more that state and local spending is a much bigger factor than the stimulus so those cutbacks easily outweighed the stimulus infrastructure spending.

  • LeeEsq

    Remember when we could build lasting infrastructure with little or no political problems?

    • DrDick

      Hell, I can remember when Republicans promoted massive spending on infrastructure improvements.

      • Green Caboose

        They still do – as long as the infrastructure improvement is in a country the US occupies and the word is done by no-bid, no-audit contracts to GOP contributors.

  • R. Porrofatto

    If we could only create some instruments our great financial overlords could profit from — infrastructure derivatives, bridge default swaps, collateralized sweat obligations, something — then we could rebuild… oh fuck who am I kidding? They’d sell off the bridges, highways and infrastructure in good condition to lower their own tax bills. Well, thank goodness that’s not happening anywhere.

    • Timb

      So, you haven’t heard of selling toll roads to private companies at huge profits for the private industry? That’s what genius Mitch Daniels did in Indiana. Sold our road for 3+ billion, when the estimated return on the investment was 11 billion.

      See, the market works

  • Y’know, you’d think they’d take a page out of New York’s book. After the bridge up by Schenectady collapsed, NY undertook a massive inspection and repair/upgrade program that took over a decade to complete.

    Nevermind the city bridges that underwent similar restoration when it was discovered that so much bird poop had built up on them, they were a good windstorm away from toppling over. Or the city subway, for that matter.

    • Sherm

      After the bridge up by Schenectady collapsed

      Are you referring to the Thruway incident back around 1987 or so?

      • Right, Schoharie. Not Schenectady. My bad.

        • Sherm

          No problem. I was just wondering if you were referring to a different incident which I didn’t recall. I was in college in Albany at that time, and had to take route 20 west to get home in order to bypass the collapsed bridge. A lot of fun trying to pass the farmers in their tractors in my broken-down chevette.

          • I can imagine. I own a place in Delaware county and the one state highway (really a glorified county highway) washes out regularly, forcing me to go over a sizable mountain on dirt roads.

            I owned a 14 year old beater for one of the washouts. There were times I considered getting out and pushing.

        • TrishB

          Yeah, that was my neck of the woods. I grew up in Amsterdam and had left for a new semester in MA that morning. The day before, I had been over that damn bridge to visit a friend. Got a very funny look at the news shop the next morning when I spotted the NYDN cover. I think I said something that must have sounded like “gerp,” but dorkier.

  • Brandon

    why is the graph “millions of $/(billions of $ * 1000)”?

    • Anonymous

      If you have a quantity measured in billions, you multiply by 1000 to convert it to millions.

      The y axis is effectively unit-less, as any good ratio should be.

      • Brandon

        Oh, duh. That was quite stupid of me.

        • Anonymous

          Not at all, it looked wrong to me at first too, then I thought it through and it clicked.

  • Well some areas of the US, like southern Arizona where I used to live, never got proper infrastructure in the first place. Once you get south of Arivaca Road there are almost no paved roads, water has to come from a well or be trucked, the telephone lines are just about worthless, television requires a satellite dish, and internet is only available thorough a jerry rigged wireless system that locals built as a series of relays all the way from Tubac. Electricity is the only semi-reliable utility and the co-op responsible for it charges quite a bit. The initial complaint of lack of infrastructure development that was one of the stated reasons for throwing their lot in with the Confederacy during the Civil War has still not been addressed properly. So it is not just a matter of deterioration. Some areas were never developed in the first place.

  • It was one spontaneous sinkhole in D.C. that damaged an old water main. A much better target would be the usual course of events – Massive water main break with attendant flooding, damage from same and loss of water in the immediate area and often water restrictions for the region. Sinkhole optional.

    (And then there are the sewer backups in areas where the number of housing units has spiked but the infrastructure is ancient.)

    At the end of the day, greed, stupidity and cowardice maintain the status quo nicely. No one wants to pay the tab for effective maintenance and repairs (see also the Metro system), no one trusts the companies involved to give an accurate cost of repairs, no one wants the inconvenience involved with repairs and no pol wants to push for a fix until, yes, something is completely broken.

    • It was one spontaneous sinkhole in D.C.

      That’s the most apt description I’ve ever seen for the Republican Congressional caucus.

  • anthrofred

    I blame Ronald Reagan. “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads” indeed.

    • JKTHs

      That’s the solution! Rich people get flying cars, the rest drive on falling-apart infrastructure.

  • mattH

    Very Scary. I drove across this bridge twice at night while on vacation back in April.

  • Gavin

    Analysis of the Betsy Ross bridge connecting Philly to NJ:

    Appraisal: Functionally obsolete
    Sufficiency rating: 36.8 (out of 100)

    Bridgehunter should be linked in the OP for this thread..

    • Hogan

      Link goes to the Ben Franklin, not the Betsy Ross.

      • Gavin

        Good point.. the Betsy Ross is only a few years older than me, the Franklin was built in 1924 and is the problem.

  • Major Kong

    If some terrorist group managed to bring down a bridge I’m sure we’d spend a couple trillion dollars invading one or more Middle Eastern countries.

    • Davis X. Machina

      The Global War on Gravity? The Great Struggle Against Metal Fatigue?

      • Malaclypse

        It is well past time that we declare War on Entropy!

        • “Entropy: it’s not just a good idea. It’s the law.”

  • stickler

    I’ll be interested to find out more about the truck that did the damage. Some kind of big drilling equipment out of Canada was being shipped to Vancouver, WA, presumably for export.

    What corporation was responsible for this shipment? Who was supposed to have checked the HEIGHT RESTRICTIONS on I-5? I’ll bet the driver and the shipping company are subsidiaries of outsourced contractors who were themselves subcontracted through a shell company in Delhi.

    And who will be held financially liable for the damages?

    (Oh, I know, it’s not going to be a corporation. It’s going to be the taxpayer. But still, it’s fun to speculate.)

    • Although as our commenters decided last night, subcontracting is awesome for everyone involved.

      • stickler

        Actually, I may have been too cynical about the contracting (which is, of course, awesome for everyone always). Looks like it’s a company out of Alberta. But take a look at the photo gallery here. The truck was carrying some kind of containerized living quarters. It’s a big rectangle of metal, it’s got a ding in the forward corner, and that’s it.

        Wow. I had expected some sort of massive tower of Krupp steel or something.

      • sibusisodan

        I’m aware that snark is the functional currency here at lgm, but that’s a bit de trop, in my view.

  • Gone2Ground

    A couple of election cycles ago we had a proposal for a state income tax in WA on people making over $250K. It was sponsored and promoted by Bill Gates’ dad. Went nowhere. Eventheliberals in the PNW couldn’t be persuaded to part with some teeny bit of their piles of MSCash to help pay to keep the place up.

    We pay around 9.5% sales tax here for almost everything. Some locales are down into the 8% range for sales tax, but between that and the gas tax, we have a fairly low revenue stream. I don’t think property taxes are all that high, although people in King County bitch about them all the time. Of course bidness owners regularly piss and moan about all their taxes, but I don’t think we are anywhere near East Coast levels.

    Nobody seems to get that “to have nice things, you have to pay for them.”

  • Anonymous

    Loomis:
    Seriously?

    You realize there’s a lot of space between “Subcontracting is always good”, and “Subcontracting shouldn’t exist”, right?

    Are you incapable of dealing with criticism in good faith? Because it sure seems like it to me.

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